Educational Reform: Slow but Sure vs. Fast and Fail

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
September 19th, 2011

A version of this column, “How to Stop the Drop in Verbal Scores,” by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., appears in today’s editions of the New York Times — rp.

The latest bad news from our nation’s schools is that the verbal scores of our top students – college bound 17-year-olds who sign up to take the SAT – have once again declined. This unsurprising result is consistent with verbal scores for 17-year-olds on the more broadly based National Assessment of Educational Progress, which have remained essentially unchanged for 40 years.

How worried should we be? Very. And our concerns should be particularly acute because nearly nothing in our otherwise laudable and energetic education reform efforts takes direct aim at the Great Verbal Decline that took place among 17-year-olds from (roughly) 1970 to 1980.

Cognitive psychologists, who are rarely heeded in the intense rough and tumble of the education wars, agree that early childhood language learning (age two to ten) is critical to later verbal competence because of something they call the “Matthew Effect,” which determines the rate at which new word meanings are learned. The name comes from a passage in the Book of Matthew: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” Those who are language-poor in early childhood get relatively poorer, and fall further behind, while the verbally rich get richer.

In short, the more words you already know, the faster the rate at which you will acquire new words. This sounds like an invitation to vocabulary study for tots, but that’s been tried, and it’s not effective. Most of the word meanings we know are acquired by indirect means — by intuitively guessing new meanings as we understand the overall gist of what we are hearing or reading. The Matthew Effect in language can therefore be restated this way: “To those who understand the gist shall be given new word meanings, but to those who do not understand the gist there shall ensue boredom, frustration and discouragement, but not new words.” Multiply that classroom experience thousands of times over the years, and you get lower vocabularies, lower verbal scores.

But note the first half of the Matthew Effect. “Unto every one that hath shall be given.” Clearly the key is to make sure that from kindergarten on every student is brought along from the first days of preschool to understand the gist of what is heard or read. And that means children need to be offered coherent knowledge about the world around them from the first days of school. This is no mere theoretical notion: a recent article in Science by Professor David Dickenson showed that when children in preschool and kindergarten are taught substantial and coherent content concerning the human and natural worlds, the results show up five or six years later in significantly improved verbal scores. (Five years is the time span by which this kind of educational intervention needs to be judged.) By systematically staying on a subject long enough to make all pre-school children familiar with it, the gist becomes understood by all and the rate of word learning increases. This is particularly important for low-income children who come to school with smaller vocabularies and rely on school to impart the knowledge base that affluent children take for granted. Research conducted in France showed that if disadvantaged children receive coherent and cumulative content from a very early age, and if that practice is sustained through the early grades, verbal scores are higher for all by the time they reach later grades, and the demographic achievement gap is greatly reduced. Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia puts it simply: Teaching content is teaching reading.

The insights of the Matthew Effect seem simply absent from the most visible current reform strategies, which focus on testing, improving teacher quality, increasing the number of charter schools and other fast-paced structural issues. Attention to these structural issues is good, but not enough–we need to pay equal attention to the substance and year-to-year coherence of what teachers teach and children learn, especially in the critical early years. Under the influence of recent reforms our best public schools – both charter and non-charter — have certainly improved the verbal scores of their students, but not as much as their math scores, and not nearly enough to overcome the huge gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students.

Our national verbal decline transcends this “achievement gap” between demographic groups. The language competence of our high school graduates fell precipitously in the seventies, and has never recovered. What changed—and what remains largely un-discussed in education reform—is that in the decades prior to the Great Decline, a content-rich elementary school experience evolved into a content-light, skills-based, test-based approach that dominates in our schools today. On the surface, this is a paradox. De-emphasizing history, science, art and music in favor of spending time learning to read, and take reading tests should raise scores on those tests. The Matthew Effect explains why it doesn’t work.

Nonetheless verbal scores on the standardized tests taken by 17-year-olds may be the closest thing we have to a crystal ball or a canary in a coal mine. Some firm correlations of life chances with verbal skills have been established over many years of research on the large data sets of the National Longitudinal Study of Youth. Verbal scores of 17-year-olds predict the students’ future and our collective future. An ability to read, write, speak and listen competently correlates with a students’ capacity to learn new things readily, to communicate with others, and to work at a job effectively. It predicts their future income levels. As the verbal competency of each new generation declines or stagnates, so too will our general economic effectiveness. The single most urgent need of our schools is to raise our children’s verbal scores.

The lesson is a simple one for education reform: the administrative structure of a school, and the heroic abilities of the individual teacher, important as they are, matter less than whether a child gradually gains a critical mass of enabling knowledge over thirteen years of schooling. The key to verbal competence is a broad base of knowledge. The best-intentioned reform efforts will not succeed—cannot succeed—without a commitment to ensuring that all children receive such enabling knowledge from the first days of school.


  1. I read your piece in the Times and was irritated enough to find your blog.

    I’m a writer; I make a dubious living writing NCLB-driven K12 texts (and, sometimes, undergrad texts which presume both the students and teachers are miles brighter and more engaged with the subjects). I’m also a mother. Yes, my daughter’s environment is language-rich, and it shows. She’s also old enough now — eight — that I’ll deliberately use words she doesn’t know, rather than take the reading level down as I talk, and wait for her to ask. Usually she does. Her best friends also come from overeducated households and have large vocabularies, and as far as I can make out that’s a matter of self-segregation. Already, at that age.

    I cannot tell you how thrilled I’d be if we reverted to sensible teaching and got away from the skills-based asininity, though it’d require far better-educated teachers. (Cf. Roald Dahl’s short childhood bio about his wonderful masters’-pub-hour babysitter at school, who gave them their real education; it’s in Henry Sugar.)

    However. In the meantime there’s another way in which parents, even low-income parents (and I happen to be one), can give their kids a freaking vocabulary. They can READ. They can take the kids to the FREAKING LIBRARY AND MAKE THAT SATURDAY AFTERNOON’S ENTERTAINMENT. They can cancel the expensive cable and get granny cable, so that all that’s on is PBS and C-SPAN and local government channels and a handful of commercial networks. They can read newspapers and grow their own vocabularies. They can look at what the kids are reading and say, “You’ve read that book over and over, it’s time for something more challenging; you can read that one at bedtime,” and make the kids go get harder books. For God’s sake, just switch on NPR and let them natter at the kids! Voila, middle-class genteel vocabulary! I mean really, the fun never ends.

    What you propose instead is that we devote yet more energy to doing the parenting that these parents apparently will not do. Please, spare me the tiny-violin stories about how disadvantaged the parents are. My grandpa, and probably your father, showed up here with nothing. My grandpa left school after eighth grade to go help his broken-English-speaking ma in the candy store. And yet he had a house full of moldy paperbacks, read law on his own, ran a successful business. You know who his favorite writer was? Thoreau. His children didn’t require special interventions. Instead they grew up and went to graduate school. Magic.

    Do I object to spending two weeks on butterflies? No, of course not. I do object to doing it slowly and repetitively in the name of waiting for the kids whose home vocabulary is half cussing to catch up. Here’s how you catch them up without making everyone else wait: You ask as you go: “What did I just say? What’s a proboscis?” And then afterwards you stop by the kid who was picking her nose and goggling into space at the time and say, “Qiara, did you understand what we talked about? What’s a proboscis?” And then you tell her. And you stop by five minutes later: “Explain to me what you’re doing.” On the way to lunch: “Qiara! What’s a proboscis?” keep pushing like she’s your own kid, and then she knows you love her, and more likely than not she’ll respond. You do this from kindergarten on, and it works.

    I know it works, because this is how I’ve taught no-hopers at much higher levels, in community college, people who’d been held back multiple times and dropped out. You set real expectations and then you’re simply ferocious about what they can know and do, and by the time they’re done they’re walking out of class all rubbery and saying at the end that they learned more in your class than in any other class ever. I got away with that in CC because there was no oversight and nobody forcing me to teach in this way or that. No K12 teacher can get away with this. We need smarter, better-educated teachers there and they need freedom to teach, not to mention freedom from 87 zillion farkakte administrative requirements and mandates, all of which suck time like leeches.

    We expend VAST RESOURCES on the struggling, striving, pick-your-euphemism student with cruddy parents, and we leave other kids circling in the pattern and getting angry with boredom. It’s enough! Enough! The books I’m hired to write are so dumbed-down it makes you cry. Everyone’s so terrified that if you don’t predigest a paragraph for a child and scaffold it till you can’t see the building anymore that the kid will fail, meaning teachers’ jobs will be lost. It’s INSANE. Stop, stop with the focus on these particular kids, and just *teach as though they all have some brains*. Jesus H. Christ.

    Okay, I’m done. Let the sparrow-catching begin.

    -Anonymous writer who wants to remain employable.

    Comment by writer — September 19, 2011 @ 10:49 am

  2. Anonymous writer- read Hirshes books you may find that you both are saying the same things. Even down to the NPR suggestion. What I hear you saying though that Hirshe does not address and I see in DC is this debate about differentiated education. Can a teacher really help the range of kids that are in their classrooms or does it more often than not result in teaching to the bottom while the rest of the kids wait because they will test at least proficient and nobody will penalize the teacher if they have fewer advanced students.

    Comment by Charlotte Osborn — September 19, 2011 @ 1:12 pm

  3. I must say I really enjoyed the comments by “Anonymous writer who wants to remain employable.” I don’t blame her for staying anon but I would enjoy talking to her!

    Anon speaks a lot of truth. However, there are many big differences between the time, love, and attention a parent can give one child at home and what a teacher can do for 30 kids, or more, each day. I was trained as a teacher in England, taught English in France for a year, taught 5th grade in NYC for 2 years, and became a freelance education writer for quite a few of the big US companies. I raised two boys of my own. Now I am an ePublisher and entrepreneur.

    I’ve spent the last 5 years developing a “motivational learning community” online. Last year, we had 17,000 CT children enrolled. My system of “instructional quizzes” bursts the bubble in bubble tests. We use the bubble test format, but TEACH as well as test. Right before you ask a question is a wonderful time to teach something . . . we blend teaching and testing.

    I think what is often forgotten is the kids’ point of view. They don’t opt in for school and yet they are expected to care a great deal for the formal system and its values. Sometimes, the only power kids have is not to care. Sometimes, a lot of the day truly seems irrelevant and punishing. Anyway, it’s all a lot more complicated than that, of course. I developed my instructional quizzes in an after-school program at bilingual school where 97% get free lunch.

    What I have discovered is that if you give kids a concrete goal, structure an experience for success (not gotcha mode), give plenty of short feedback, let the work gradually get harder (like a video game), add lots of pictures and a little music, allow kids to choose their own level, and have live scoreboards that rank kids by how hard they are working . . . well, you get some good results!
    I have created to be a motivational learning community that makes every child a verbal billionaire. The pedagogy is based on BRINGING WORDS TO LIFE, a book much cited in the CCSS.

    The first publishing company I started was called CLASSIC THEATER FOR CHILDREN and ED Hirsch happened to be on a morning TV show the day my partner was there. (My partner was Managing Editor of My Weekly Reader years ago.) Mr. Hirsch graciously looked at our work and wrote a letter of endorsement which we were truly grateful for. I’m hoping he might say something nice about my400words :)

    Comment by Annabelle Howard — September 19, 2011 @ 1:26 pm

  4. Charlotte,

    “What I hear you saying though that Hirshe does not address and I see in DC is this debate about differentiated education. Can a teacher really help the range of kids that are in their classrooms?”

    They CAN but they choose not to. It’s simply easier for them to teach to the whole class. Easier because it’s not as much work and organization but easier also because it’s accepted practice. Sad.

    Once again a public entity – SCHOOL – chooses not to meet the needs of its constituents, but chooses instead to placate those it employs, its teachers. Very sad.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — September 19, 2011 @ 9:04 pm

  5. I don’t believe that many teachers can differentiate across the range of students seen in many classes. In the early years, perhaps, but those are the years when kids need lots of supervised practice, in reading, in arithmetic,and in writing. By fourth grade, some kids may still be at 1st-grade level and some kids at 6th and that’s just not meeting their academic needs. BTW, the kids at 6th probably should be at least a year ahead but they have not had appropriate challenges (“enrichment”,”peer tutoring” or just ignored), and the kids at 1st probably should be at least a year ahead but they didn’t get enough repetition and supervised practice.

    What really bothers me is the oft-repeated idea that the only way to challenge kids is to put them all together. Even at HS level, educators will say that all kids need AP (even if they read at 5th grade level) because those are the only challenging classes available. To me, that’s a indictment of the entire school. There’s no reason that all classes shouldn’t be challenging, for kids appropriately placed in them. When I was in school, in the days of tracking, the non-college-prep English classes were real and demanded real effort. I worked with many of the kids on the school paper, so I knew what they were doing. The lit requirements were less demanding but were good literature (not popular beach reads)and the writing was less academic (no term papers)but was the kind of everyday writing that employers expected.

    Paul, I disagree. If a school chooses to meet the needs of students, it will place them such that every kid will be in a homogeneous class by subject, give them work that demands effort but is achievable and encourage them to move ahead as fast as possible. Some kids need extra time and repetition than the average and some kids can handle more depth and a faster pace. Some kids can handle the entire k-12 curriculum in 9-11 years, some will take 13 years, and some will take 13 years to master the 8th-grade curriculum. Pretending these differences don’t exist cheats many students.

    Comment by momof4 — September 20, 2011 @ 10:10 am

  6. Actually, Paul, I have to disagree. I sit in classrooms and I see those teachers work like the devil. The time constraints they’re under are insane; they have things timed down to the minute, because they’re expected to drag all the kids over various bars for dozens of standards. It’s perfectly nuts. The teachers have things choreographed like Ginger Rogers, but it’d be smarter for them to turn around and say, What are you, out of your mind? We’re not teaching that way.

    The schools won’t track, or won’t track early, because it’s expensive and because it opens them to charges of elitism and warehousing. Tant pis. In the meantime, there’s no percentage anyway in putting real energy into the kids who do fine on the tests when there’s so much more to gain at the bottom of the bell curve, administratively speaking. So the admin mumbles a lot about having kids learn from each other, good examples, and a lot of other malarkey. I don’t dispute the value of teaching, but the kids are there primarily to learn, not to serve as unpaid teaching aides.

    I think this is how the any successful anti-NCLB attack will have to be framed (keeping in mind, of course, that the point of NCLB is to destroy slowly what can’t be destroyed quickly, namely the public-school chokehold on tax money): it’s a radical misallocation of resources that endangers the country’s future prosperity and national security. Half the time and budget can’t be spent on squeezing a percent increase on test scores from the lowest-performing students.

    Comment by writer — September 20, 2011 @ 10:59 am

  7. [...] Knowledge Blog has a longer version of Hirsch’s [...]

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  8. [...] curricula that went with them? Are they still relevant today? Not only are they relevant, argues Core Knowledge founder E. D. Hirsch Jr. — they’re far superior to the process- and test-based approaches of today, an approach he [...]

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  9. I am a high school teacher who will be teaching the verbal portion of the SATs during the fall of this year. I was very much impress with this article because it gave me insight on where I need to work with my students on improving their verbal scores. Since these students are already in high school I will have to work with them at the point where they are at. But for future reference, I appreciate the article because it is showing me the importance of vocabulary development for anyone.

    Comment by C. D.D. — September 23, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

  10. E.D. Hirsch: To Stop the Drop in Verbal Scores, Teach Content, Facts, Actual Knowledge…

    As we have noted here many times before, E.D. Hirsch explains how educating kids is really about teaching them content – facts, knowledge, context – especially in the early years, like K-5, so that later they can process information and bet…

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  11. I agree with most of your stuff. I was reading The Making of Americans again and your assertion in Chapter 5 about free trade being the main cause of loss of American jobs. I would say that the main cause is the pace of technology. There are now tens of thousands of jobs open that need people who have a “real” high school education, that is communicate, do simple math but these jobs are going unfilled because our populace is so poorly educated. Second, the comment about going slow is anathema to me. I am an engineer by training. Engineers are “programmed” to be master problem solvers. That means to face reality because our mission is to solve problems with fixes that actually work. Also, if educators would follow the Pareto principle (prioritize efforts, biggest drag on performance first)they would see exponential improvement very quickly. Considering the lack of leadership capability in education the slow pace seems all that is possible but with real leadership with objectivity and change management skill quick improvements are very possible. Yes, there aren’t any in the fiefdom but there are some outsiders with the skill and the objective (unbrainwashed by ed school training) view of reality to make huge improvements.

    Comment by Paul Richardson — May 20, 2012 @ 6:41 pm

  12. [...] and would fall a little further behind his more verbal peers.  Thank or blame the insidious “Matthew Effect.”  Bellafante’s excellent piece makes the same point implicitly with its description of the [...]

    Pingback by Demographics Isn’t Destiny. Vocabulary is Destiny. « The Core Knowledge Blog — October 8, 2012 @ 1:25 pm

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